By: Leah Howard
Reports regarding the Zika virus and its spread have received increasing national and international media attention.”
This opening line from an email sent Monday to members of the Emory community highlights the importance and urgency of the new virus that is shaking the world. Outbreaks and epidemics are two words that are now quite familiar. We are used to the common diseases — measles, flu, E. Coli — but, there is a new one, the Zika Virus, which has gained worldwide attention and cause for international collaboration. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)* produced the first alert of the outbreak. The outbreak was originally observed in Brazil, and has now spread to more than 20 countries in the Americas. Zika virus is known to cause fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis – these symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, and hospitalization is rare. Zika virus is transmitted via mosquito bite and there is no cure or vaccine for the disease.
Pregnancy defects are the main concern being considered in abortion policies in Zika infected areas. With the virus predicted to infect anywhere from 3-4 million people in the region, the threat to newborns in the Americas is thought to be high. El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and even Jamaica have all warned against women getting pregnant until 2018. Women’s rights and child activists in El Salvador argue that this announcement by the government is outlandish considering the country has a strict non-abortion policy. Latin American countries are notorious for having some of the toughest abortion policies in the world. Because of these policies, 95% of abortions in these countries are performed under unsafe conditions. Most of the 4.4 million abortions are performed performed yearly in the area are unsafe, with about 1 million resulting in women being hospitalized afterwards.
Abortion laws in each country vary. El Salvador states that the fetus is a human from the moment of conception, denying any woman the right to receive an abortion at any time. The abortion policy applies even if the mother’s health is at risk – a mother cannot end her child’s life in order to save her own. This strict policy is enforced in other Central and South American countries as well. Honduras has criminalized abortion and the morning after pill. Guatemala only allows abortion if the mother’s health is at stake, but does not allow abortion in the instance of rape. The Zika virus may be a turning point for women in Latin American countries, allowing them the option of abortion. While this is a move in the right direction for women's health rights, it is done so at the cost of reinforcing disability stigma and fear.
This issue is larger than just abortion. Activist groups are also calling for an expansion of access to contraceptives. Not only is it difficult for women in these countries to end pregnancy, but it is equally/more difficult to prevent it. Contraceptive use and sex education is limited in these countries because there is a taboo against contraception and birth control. The Zika virus forces public health professionals and government officials to reexamine policy surrounding the right to women’s health in context of a spreading disease, and hopefully, change these policies in the near future.
* The Center for the Study of Human Health is hosting a talk by Dr. Isabella Danel, the Deputy Director of PAHO/WHO, on March 3 from 4pm - 6pm in Candler School of Theology, room 252. She will discuss both her role at the WHO and the recent Zika outbreak.
If you would like more information about abortion laws worldwide, please check out this link: http://worldabortionlaws.com/map/